Thirty years ago, in my economics text book, the section on international trade referred to Argentina. It would be better – said the author – for Argentina to concentrate on production and export of beef, while Germany should put its resources towards electronic products. This was the essence of the comparative advantage theory – do more of what you do best, rather than diversify your economy. It seemed churlish. It condemned Argentina to produce raw materials, while Germany went ahead with technological development.
Argentina, at that time, was still a major producer and exporter of beef. We had no access to José Hernández’s epic poem Martín Fierro, about the gauchos of the pampas, the cowboys of the plains of Argentina, but we knew of the ferocious compadritos(hoodlums) and cuchilleros(knife fighters) from the short stories of Jorge Luis Borges. There were cowboys mixed in here, loners who sat on their horses on Argentina’s flat-lands and gathered their cattle for the market.
No longer do these horsemen define the Argentine economy. It is more accurate to portray the soybean farmer as the protagonist of the country’s fortunes. Much of this has to do with the growth of the Chinese market, where rising living standards have shifted dietary habits – including more meat consumption. The soybeans go to feed the pigs of China. It is remarkable that from 1960 to 2013 the world soybean harvested area increased from 20 million hectares to 120 million hectares. Argentina became one of the major suppliers to the Chinese market. Four problems confound Argentina’s soybean trade:
- The price of soybean has declined, with Argentina selling more volume but its farmers receiving less profit on their sale. In 2012, soybean sold at US$17.5/bushel, but now sells at US$8.4/bushel.
- China buys more raw soybeans rather than soybean oil, which means that it retains the value-added parts of soybean production for its own industries.
- Argentina’s right-wing government cut back on taxes for soybean export, which hurt its public revenues. Now, with the currency crisis, the government is going to reinstate the taxes.
- A drought hurt Argentina’s soybean crop, to make up for which the industry purchased 120,000 tonnes from farmers in the United States. Environmental problems will continue to pose problems for Argentina’s soybean sector. Soybeans leach the soil.
Who Remembers Us?
Soybean production takes up about half of Argentina’s arable land. It is no longer cattle that run through the pampas; it is now the soybean flowers that tilt in the breeze.
Wildo Eizaguirre likes to talk about farming. He farms only one hectare of land, which he rents from a real estate company. On this farm, Wildo is forced to be creative. The farm is near the town of La Plata, whose markets survive on the fresh produce grown by Bolivian migrant farmers such as Wildo. In greenhouses made of found wood and plastic sheeting, the farmers grow tomatoes and peppers, chard and lettuce. Barrels of home-made fertilizer line the edges of the farmland. Some of these fields are worked in an organic method, but others – such as those that grow tomatoes – have to be treated with chemicals. Wildo’s farm is clean. He works hard at that. He smiles proudly when I mention it.
Wildo in a greenhouse
Small farmers like Wildo find it difficult to survive. Half of their costs go to rent, while a third more goes to electricity. Farmers like Antonio García as well as Elsa and Mabel Yanaje suggest – as well – that the rent is a dead weight for them. The cost of land is prohibitive and their tenure on the land is uncertain. It prevents the farmers from making capital improvements to the farm or even from buying equipment (such as tractors) to make their labour more productive. Neither do these farmers own the fields nor do they control the pathways to the market. Brokers buy their produce at the lowest prices and then take them to be processed or sold directly to supermarkets. The money is made elsewhere than on the fields.
Wildo and the farmers around him belong to the Movement of the Excluded Workers (MTE), which is a part of the Confederation of Workers in the Popular Economy (CTEP). The concept of ‘popular economy’ (la economía popular) refers to activities inside the informal sector that are designed to benefit the workers in the sector and not the chain of accumulation that otherwise takes maximum advantage of them. In February this year, 40,000 workers of the CTEP and MTE marched to the headquarters of their provincial government demanding the declaration of a food emergency. These are people who work the land and who work to keep the city clean, but they have very little food to show for it. Hunger stalks their world. It is hunger, the sharp downturn of the economy and the lack of dignity shown to them that lead these workers to groups like CTEP and MTE.
In the CTEP office (Buenos Aires) I meet Juan Grabois, one of the leaders of CTEP. Most of the leaders of the Argentinian left are deceptively young – Juan is only 35 years old. It has to be rememberedthat the military Junta that ruled Argentina from 1976 to 1983 killed the entire fruit of the left’s leadership. Young men and women like Juan Grabois came to politics when their country almost literally dissolved in the crucible of IMF policy making in 2001-02. Argentina exploded in a million directions, ordinary people blockading the streets and banging pots and pans – these were the piqueteros. Young people like Juan Grabois and Milagro Sala (now in prison) as well as Manuel Bertoldi and Itai Hagman of the political formation Patria Grande came of age in this period. They organised the Movement of the Unemployed Workers and the Movement of the Excluded Workers, student groups and feminist groups, platforms for the indigenous and platforms for the disillusioned. These young people are today the backbone of Argentina’s rapid regrowth of a genuine left.
Grabois pushes back his long hair as we talk about Argentina’s economic troubles, its currency slipping into oblivion against the US dollar. He has interesting ideas about the social wages that are needed to create a new Argentinian project – one in which, as he says, ‘no member of society suffers deprivation’ and every person is able to find a way to live. If such a new basis is not created, he feels, Argentina – like other parts of the world– will slip into permanent chaos. The crisis cannot be handled with military force. No new dictatorship is on the horizon. No police can fire enough tear gas to end the misery.
The police on one side, the workers on the other
The people of CTEP and MTE are serious. In the countryside, I visit a processing shed set up by the MTE. Here, the organisation intends to store produce and process it to provide the farmers with a better deal. Maria Eugenia Ambort, a militant with MTE, tells me about MTE’s range of work. A few years ago, the MTE along with the Barrios de Pie (a militant group based in the neighbourhoods of Argentina) created community kitchens on the streets as a way to focus on the hunger crisis. Nothing that is meaningful to the workers is alien to the work of the MTE.
Wildo is a philosopher of the small farmers. ‘The land’, he says, is ‘predictable’. He knows when to plant his tomatoes and he knows when to harvest them. What is not predictable, he says, is the market. Wildo would like to live in a world where he is not defined by the power of capital. That is the world he is fighting to build.